For columnist Andrew Coyne, a telltale line in last spring’s budget was the promise to improve the tax treatment of capital gains for fishers; for Jeffrey Simpson it was the commitment to visibility, as in “tax relief people can see”; and for Chantal Hébert it was Gilles Duceppe’s pre-budget assurance of fealty to anything non-Liberal. The national media—deemed biased and therefore unworthy of access to the prime minister, “happy face” Jim Flaherty, or merchant of fear Stockwell Day—made their assessments and generally agreed that the Conservative government is not conservative at all. Their ideology reduced to pragmatism, in terms of policy and strategy the Conservatives are, for the time being then, the new natural governing party of Canada.
With the silly season upon us, I suspect Coyne is still struggling to imagine Harper’s lips forming the word “fishers” and wondering when trawlers or rodmen last required capital gains relief; Simpson will be pondering how a budget that guarantees $1.1 billion for defence squares with the post-budget determination to purchase long-haul transport planes (maybe $2 billion) and Hercules helicopters ($4-5 billion); and Hébert will eye Quebec separatism traded in for “fiscal balance.”
The budget was a canard, an election document devoid of actuarial probity. At 302 pages, and from a political party that insists tax dollars are your money to save and not the government’s to spend, one might have expected specificity. Distinct from detail—of which there was so much that it served more to obfuscate than to clarify—specificity would provide the public with a genuine sense of what our reluctant taxman has in store for us. Taxes will go down for all Canadians, Conservatives insist, but total spending is up, and another post-budget announcement of up to $245 million to build new federal prison cells leads only to head-scratching. Given the three to four hundred new inmates anticipated per year, the best estimates suggest that $2 billion will be necessary for construction, plus another billion to operate the less-than-friendly chambers. In short, the budget was as revealing of true intentions as Harper’s fabled “five priorities,” or his campaign to “Stand Up for Canada.”
Taking shelter from the mass of paper, I went to the budget speech itself. There, shibboleths tumble forward: “Mr. Speaker, accountability is a priority for this government”; “Mr. Speaker…First Nations, the first people to live here, face special challenges”; “Mr. Speaker, community support is essential to Canada’s arts and cultural life.” With the parliamentary press gallery shuttered, no significant debate on Afghanistan, and the Ethics Commissioner anything but sanguine, government accountability is a wash; the Kelowna Accord mothballed, the “special challenges” facing aboriginal Canadians are more acute than ever; and with the proposed doubling of the Canada Council budget axed, artists wonder if “community” includes the federal state.
But the speech’s soft underbelly was best revealed through the homily, “Mr. Speaker, our government recognizes that no two families are exactly alike.” Before critiquing the government for its firm grasp of the obvious, it is worth considering why Leo Tolstoy thought otherwise. Anna Karenina begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and in the more nuanced world of unhappy families, public daycare may be just the tonic.
In the larger Canadian family, with so many children scrapping for time at the federal trough, Harper has decided to side with she who bleats loudest: Quebec. The bastard child of Confederation—the one left out in 1982, and cranky ever since—couldn’t be more pleased. There is something terribly wrong when a separatist leader, Gilles Duceppe, is happy enough with the order of things, but not as happy as “federalist” Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest. After snubbing Ontario, Harper staged a photo op in Quebec City with Charest that bordered on the unctuous. Charest, once a Tory, now a Liberal, once for Canada, now for “asymmetric federalism” to the cliff-edge of separation, clasped hands and laughed riotously with Papa Bear Harper, once an honest ideologue, now a pragmatist, and who the hell knows.
The narrow issue agreed upon was Quebec’s right to send representatives to UNESCO meetings; the wider issue—acknowledged with a guffaw and recognition that decentralization served both their electoral interests—was that there would be fresh demands and that they would continue to scratch each other’s backs. Harper’s mistake is not realizing that wayward children often cannily demand greater and greater attention, and once special time on Papa’s knee is awarded, the gift becomes addictive, the desire for more unquenchable. For Quebec, it is UNESCO today; tomorrow it might be the Cree territories.
But maybe Mr. Harper is quite content with such provincial addictions.